As we know, a spouse is the person who would be the chief suspect in the mysterious death of the other spouse (unless the deceased was linked to Vyapam). The writer Elif Batuman, in a review of ‘Gone Girl’, described marriage as “an abduction”. Over a decade ago, the cartoonist Michael Shaw raised the question in a cartoon, ‘Gays and lesbians getting married — haven’t they suffered enough?’
The defamation of marriage is often wise, but no amount of artistic brilliance can so effectively insult what marriage leads to and holds — the core family. When it works, there is no team like a family. In circumstances that endanger its survival a family can even be deadly.
The hit Tamil film of the season, ‘Papanasam’, which is a remake of a Malayalam film, is about a regular family lolling in simple joys until one day when they are faced with an extraordinary situation from which they have to extricate themselves. The two leads Kamal Haasan and Gauthami are in the real world lovers who have expressed contempt for the idea of marriage. In the film, he is a cable-operator and she his content wife, and they are a small town sexually active middle-aged couple. They have two daughters, one a child and the other a young woman. Circumstances force the young woman to commit a crime, and the family has to work together to destroy the evidence.
For commercial reasons, the victim of the crime is despicable. Even if he were not, many of us would be on the side of the cable-operator’s family as it breaks several laws to save itself. Also, this would be the only time most of us would love a cable-operator.
Families usually do not require one of its own to commit a crime to become a team. In many small ways, every day, they are just that. And like wild animals, they thrive in captivity. Most people find happiness, even appreciation, only in a family or a portion of a family. In the world outside they are nothing, they are treated as nothing. And they treat the world that surrounds their home merely as a place where they forage for food. In fact, most people derive the conviction that they are virtuous purely from how they are at home, how they love their own. The Dursleys, for instance, are a good family, if they are not seen from Harry Potter’s point of view. Much love in that house when Potter is at school.
Families were always vital to individuals but in the recent times, across the world, there appears to be a reverent acceptance of the fact. It is increasingly hard for the wild to remain wild and keep a family too. The reason why a particular beast of the middle class who survived well until the last generation is increasingly endangered — the delinquent alcoholic head of the family. The circumstances of women have changed and they can now kick such men out, however fascinating they might be as characters. Also, an underrated force in male reformation is the fact that old men recede and the new men do not wish to be their fathers.
A family is a cartel, it has always been so. What are known as traditional family values are compensations for the failures of the government. The objective of a family then is to overcome the State and provide an unfair advantage to its young. This was, until recently, done by a network of relations often living in the same house. And the young appeared to respect the old because the old were useful. The same reason why a poor man’s son is more likely to rebel against his father than a rich man’s son. As the society prospered the family discarded its peripheral relations because they were not required, but the smallest efficient unit is still the nuclear family and not the individual.
The Indian society is not a contest between individuals but between families. Increasingly, even in the United States and Britain, this is the case because unfair advantages, even in those nations, have become extremely lucrative. The income gap between lowbrow jobs and jobs that require higher education and social contacts has become vast even in the developed world.
But what about the charms of a solitary life, a life saved from the “abduction” of marriage and all that follows? Only a fraction of those who fantasise about such a life are equipped to live this way. The rumoured beauty of a life outside family is to an extent a result of the disproportionate influence that artists, who may love solitude as much as they claim, have had over popular anthropology.
Also, the frequency of the lone protagonist in stories is caused by a flaw in the first draft — in the first sketch of characterisation the central character is most often solitary because the other characters with whom he or she would interact are yet to be formed. The interaction between characters is a difficult part of story formation and often the flawed solitude of the protagonist survives the future drafts. And there is the matter of sheer convenience. When a story is not about a family, it would greatly help the plotting to make the protagonist a loner.
All through this, in the real world for whom these stories are written, most people crave to be in families. That way they would not be anonymous, and they would have a witness to their days. And they would be in the care of a deadly team.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. He tweets by the handle @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal.